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Eager to shift their focus to the economy, House Republicans on Wednesday will pass an obscure trade bill that is set to become the linchpin of the GOP's larger jobs message.
The bill, which is slated for expedited consideration, would reauthorize the Generalized System of Preferences, a set of key — but little-known — provisions governing trade with developing nations through July 2013.
According to House and Senate aides on both sides of the aisle, the bill will be used as a vehicle for the Senate to pass the larger Trade Adjustment Assistance bill, legislation that authorizes hundreds of millions of dollars in spending on job training and other programs for U.S. workers displaced by free-trade agreements.
According to these aides, the carrot-and-stick approach of adding TAA to the noncontroversial GSP measure could smooth the path for approval of the worker assistance program, which has been mired for months in a partisan brawl.
Such movement on the TAA measure would be significant because it would pave the way for passage of three major trade agreements — with Colombia, South Korea and Panama — that the GOP has made a pillar of its jobs messaging.
Senate Republicans, led by Conference Chairman Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) and Finance ranking member Orrin Hatch (Utah), will press their case Wednesday at a news conference for the White House for the deals. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) penned an op-ed Tuesday in the Washington Post arguing that the deals would boost jobs in the United States.
Democrats have previously wanted TAA to be linked to the deals, but Republicans have resisted that maneuver.
The resulting delay has led to finger-pointing over who is to blame for stalling the deals' economic benefits, as well as aid to workers.
"The goal is the House will pass GSP, and I think the expectation is the Senate will take up that bill. The time frame is not clear, but hopefully by the end of the month," a House Democratic aide said.
A Senate GOP aide agreed, explaining that the GSP bill is at the center of an agreement between Republicans and the White House to begin moving the three trade deals and that it is unlikely anyone will want to "stand in front of that 18-wheeler."
Still, another House Democratic aide cautioned: "That's not something that's set in stone, but that's something that a lot of people have been talking about."
Most Democrats on both sides of the Capitol are eager to pass TAA, and attaching it to the GSP bill could give both parties a legislative win in the trade arena, although Democrats have grumbled that Republicans have tied workers' benefits to the trade agreements. The Congressional aide noted: "There's a lot of support for TAA, and there's some support for the [trade agreements] within Democratic ranks," particularly for South Korea and Panama.
"I think this is viewed as something that needs to get done and could have been done a lot sooner," the aide continued. "We're looking forward to resolving it all."
A number of Republicans also support the TAA legislation, most notably Rust Belt politicians such as Ways and Means Chairman Dave Camp, whose home state of Michigan has been hit hard during the past several decades as auto manufacturers have headed to other countries to set up shop in cheaper climes.
But more broadly, the GOP has long been supportive of trade deals. For instance, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney called for passage of the deals during a presidential campaign speech Tuesday in Nevada.
But strong opposition to the TAA provisions — which the White House has made a prerequisite for sending the trade deals to Congress — has led to a yearlong standoff with the Obama administration.
Although it now appears that logjam has been cleared, at least one wild card remains — Senate Budget ranking member Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.).
While Sessions generally supports reauthorizing GSP, a home-state concern of his stands in the way, leading him late last year to block a GSP bill in the Senate, which resulted in the law lapsing. Sessions has demanded that a provision be added to the bill in order to fix a loophole in the law that has allowed Bangladeshi sleeping bag manufacturers to compete with a key employer in Alabama.
In the past, Sessions has remained adamant that the GSP bill include his provision. But the bill on the House floor, sponsored by Camp, is a straight reauthorization of current law, with no add-ons.
Part of the problem for Sessions — and the sleeping bag manufacturer — is that even though it applies to a "loophole," a change to existing trade law is technically defined as an earmark under the House's prohibition. As a result, even if Camp and Republican leaders wanted to add the provision, it would likely not be possible.
It is unclear whether Sessions will decide to stick by his objections and filibuster the GSP bill. A spokesperson for Sessions would say only that the lawmaker "look[s] forward to reviewing the legislation once it arrives" from the House.
Correction: Sept. 7, 2011
An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the Generalized System of Preferences. It also should have stated that the foreign sleeping bags in question are manufactured in Bangladesh. And it mistakenly stated that imports from Myanmar receive duty-free treatment under the GSP program.